If you’ve ever been asked to dissect a story in an academic setting, you’ve probably been asked to differentiate between solid and flexible characters (or a synonym of those two words). Solid characters may be well written. They may be instrumental in moving the plot along—but they don’t grow, and that makes them, frankly, very unrealistic. In order to make our characters flexible, we need to develop a character arc that will follow the character’s journey through the plot.
First, let’s go back to the beginning. Most novels begin with a character who wants something (their goal) for a certain reason (their motivation), usually because it relates to their backstory or is supposed to fulfill the character in some way. However, their goal meets with opposition (the conflict), and if they do not surmount said opposition bad things will happen (the stakes, or the “so what” factor). In addition, the character should have a flaw of some sort, one that not only makes the problem more difficult to solve but also creates internal conflict.
Now for an example. Paul wants to rescue his brother who is imprisoned (goal) because his brother is a resistance leader who can help their cause (motivation), and if his brother is not rescued soon he will be executed (stakes). Paul has a problem trusting other people—we could say this is because his brother was betrayed. Unfortunately, this distrust is going to make Paul’s mission a little harder.
This is where the character arc comes in: every time the protagonist makes a mistake or is defeated, there is a chance to learn, to grow, to improve. It’s why the protagonist can be knocked out by the villain at the beginning and still come back to win. It’s how the protagonist can, at the same time, overcome some of their flaws and fears that overwhelmed them before.
The best way to develop this arc is to figure out where it begins and where it ends. If you already have a more or less fully fleshed-out character in mind, you have to decide what flaw is repaired or what lesson is learned (and to what extent). By my novel’s end, I want Paul to be able to give people the benefit of the doubt, and so form a revolutionary movement that isn’t paralyzed by endless tests of loyalty. He will still pursue the same motivations, but he won’t be dominated by paranoia.
If you’re using the three act structure, you can map your character arc onto the plot fairly strictly:
1. At the story’s beginning, you establish the flaw. This event doesn’t have to be anything major. I could simply have Paul groundlessly accuse one of his fellows while I’m setting up the setting and/or his own character.
2. At the story’s inciting event or “leaping-off” point, the character’s flaw causes them to make a mistake. Paul decides to rescue his brother alone. He may think this is the most practical way to avoid suspicion, but he also has the additional reason of trusting only himself to get the job done.
3. As the story progresses, the character should realize their mistake and attempt to change their flaw so that they can achieve their goals easier. Of course, these attempts will be opposed by antagonists or other circumstances, perhaps even themselves—after all, the protagonist has survived with their flaw thus far and may not want to change all that much.
4. Before the pivotal, climactic moments of the story, there is often a dark point where the protagonist experiences the most defeat and dejection, and this can be mirrored in the character arc as well. They must decide that enough is enough and that they have to remedy the flaw.
5. To make the finished arc really pack a punch, use the character’s repaired flaw or learned lesson to help defeat the antagonist during the climax. Show the protagonist, after the fight is over, embracing their new selves and not returning to their old ways now that the story’s main conflict has been solved.
If you want to make things really fancy, have the antagonist be an internal foil for the protagonist. Perhaps the general who captured and imprisoned Paul’s brother has the same flaw that Paul does. However, the antagonist is defeated because he does not grow in the same way. He does not go through the same setbacks that cause self-examination.
A good character arc, paired with a good plot, effectively engages readers because it is a story that exists on multiple levels. We all have surface-level goals and deeper goals that drive them. We all have inner conflicts that we can relate to in a protagonist. Most important of all, a good character arc can drive us to change and grow ourselves.
I like your perspective on writing characters because it focuses on how the audience sees themselves in a character. It’s too common for young writers to forget to add character flaws or, even worse, forget to have the character flaws drive the story. Your last line about how great character writing can help us grow is a great ending to the article.